A Primer on College Essays




By Rajkamal Rao  

Essays are crucial to college admissions. Image Credit: Rao Advisors LLC


High school students already know that the most crucial subjective part of their college application is, without a doubt, the college essay.  

Why do colleges even need essays?  They already know a lot about you through your grades, honors courses, AP exams, and admission tests.

But grades and admission test scores tend to bring you down to a number.  Students are human and bring with them compelling life stories that are not captured by these numbers.  

The essay provides you, as a student, an opportunity to present a human side to college admissions officers. Members of your audience who will review your essays are experts in the field. Admissions officers with just 5 - 8 years of experience may have read over 10,000 student essays in their careers!

Pay attention to the style of writing - it can't be informal, like an email you would write to your friend. Neither does it have to be formal, such as an academic research paper. It has to be somewhere in between, where you can and should liberally use the word "I."

For most essays, you should adopt the role of a storyteller.  The reader does not know you and wants to understand who you are. So oblige the reader. For some essays - such as "Why is an odd number odd?" - the storytelling approach may not work quite as well, but you can still try to inject your personality into the essay.

Depending upon the essay, the tone should express confidence, joy, or optimism. In some cases - such as a student describing a story in which he/she overcame trauma - such a tone would be inappropriate. I once had a client talk about how the sudden loss of her beloved father created chaos.

Two Types of Essays

Colleges generally require high school students to submit two types of essays.

The first is the essay required as part of the Common App or Coalition App or the Universal App - these are platforms used to apply to colleges.  The Common App, the most popular platform, lists seven “Personal essay writing prompts”, which are really seven essay questions.  You can pick one and answer it to a length of 650 words. The so-called "Personal Statement" and any one of the seven Common App essay prompts are one and the same. For most colleges, this is the only essay you will ever need.

But highly selective colleges will require you to submit additional “supplemental” essays of their choosing.  These colleges want to better understand who you really are, what you want to be, and how you can express yourself. Check out our post about the three kinds of essays colleges typically ask you to write and our advice about how to tackle them

Then there are those institutions that do not use the Common App, like most colleges in Texas which use ApplyTex, or private schools like MIT which have dedicated applications portals. They will have their own essay requirements. But some amount of reuse is possible. For example, if you're constrained for time, a good trick is to reuse the ApplyTex essay as one of the seven prompts of the Common App essay or the generic essay prompt for the Coalition App.

Regardless of which essay you are writing, the best advice we can provide can be summarized in three simple rules.
  1. Answer the essay question correctly.  Too many students read too much into the question and over-engineer their responses.

  2. Be yourself and be honest.  College admissions officers look at thousands of essays in great detail and can quickly tell a genuine essay from one that's fake. An admissions officer from Harvard, speaking at an event in Ft. Worth in May 2019, advised students to take the "cafeteria test." Suppose you left behind the draft of a college essay in the school cafeteria and you didn't have your name printed on the essay, could a friend read the essay, and immediately knew that it was you who wrote it?  If the answer is yes, you passed the cafeteria test.

  3. Have your essay professionally reviewed by someone who is neutral - that is, someone who didn't raise you from birth!  It is well worth the investment.

It is not easy to write these essays - so admission officers of several selective colleges often talk about what they expect, such as in this video clip.

How We Can Help


Please contact us to review/edit/enhance your essays. Our reviews are world-class and have helped students get into the most elite colleges. We use Grammarly Premium to edit your essays for correctness, clarity, engagement, and delivery - and for plagiarism checks.

Here is the "Before" essay of a student, the "After" essay following our review and edits, and an offer of admission the student received from Dartmouth, an Ivy League school. We can show you essays of students who have obtained admission to several selective colleges, including CMU, Duke, Cornell, Penn, and Columbia. Our lead reviewer has written over 270 articles in newspapers and is a prolific blogger.

We generally return reviewed essay versions in 24 hours or less. Our prices are $99 per hour for existing clients who also engage us for college planning services and $109/hr for clients who only want our essay review services.

How much time do we need to review/edit/enhance an essay? That depends upon the quality of the initial draft. A rule of thumb is that it takes us 1 hour to produce a professional-grade essay of about 350 words.

So, the Common App essay (650 words) and ApplyTex essay (700 words) each takes us about 2 hours. Luckily, you can reuse the ApplyTex Topic A essay verbatim to suit the Common App essay (Prompt #7). So, you're getting two essays for the price of one!

The three UT Austin Short Answer essays (750 - 900 words) take about 3 hours. For supplemental essays, it takes us 30-45 minutes each. For some tricky supplementals, such as, "Why is an odd number odd?", it will take longer. On rare occasions, we will need to talk to you briefly to understand what you want to say - and this discussion will also be billed at the hourly rate.

Please contact us for more information.




A Note About Rao Advisors Premium Services
Our promise is to empower you with high-quality, ethical, and free advice via this website.  But parents and students often ask us if they can engage with us for individual counseling sessions.  We offer world-class SOP and essay reviewing services for a reasonable fee, starting at $99/hour.

Individual counseling is part of the Premium Offering of Rao Advisors.  Please contact us for more information.

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